My missus is Kikuyu. She’s called Wambui – named after her paternal grandmother. Her shags is in Maragwa. Have you been to Maragwa? I have. If you come from a place like Kendu-Bay, just below the navel of South Nyanza, Maragwa comes as a little jolt.
You get off the main road at the shopping centre called Irebu, then you plunge into greenery. Everything is green. The grass looks photo shopped. The leaves on trees look plastic. There are banana plantains, and maize and mango trees, and folk have tilled every conceivable piece of land, a show of both hard work and voracity. But God is a fair God. For what he gives the people of Maragwa in cultivable land – and a great weather – he gives them the most village drunks per square kilometre. It all levels out.
I was there in 2007, to meet her grandmother, my first time to venture so deep into Kikuyuland. I had no entourage, just me and my good Lord (today I’m sounding saved, no?). I sat in their humble stone house, feeling like a lab specimen, as cousins and nephews and villagers trooped in silently into the house to say hallo to the jaruo. The small talk that ensued was fleeting, itchy and marked by gaps that were filled with surreptitious smiles, most which had missing teeth. Mine. Even the passing hens stopped at the doorway to stare at me with cocked heads. The hens in Kikuyuland are all tribalists.
Finally, I was asked to go see the grandmother, who I found seated outside basking on a stool, after her nap. She’s very old. About 200yrs old. She squinted at me as I approached, I bet she saw a dark shadow loom towards her, the blackest chap she had seen in a while, and a jaruo no less. Village kids stared, and shoved for a better view. Her grandmother hang onto my hand in greeting, her dry bony fingers prying into my palms, she felt warm and fragile. I looked into her white-clouded eyes, and her face curved deep with age as she started jabbering in Kikuyu. And since I didn’t know what she was saying, I replied everything with “eeeeh!” You know how Okuyus say, “eeeh, eeeh” while conversing, even when they don’t agree?
“Eeeh,”…”Eeeh.” The womenfolk watching this spectacle giggled. Then I was shown the grade cows. And goats. And then I was given a tour of the farm, which they seemed mighty proud of. Then the good part. They served food. You know how people always joke about Kuyus boiling anything that can be boiled? It’s true. Trays and trays of boiled delicacy arrived before me. There was mukimo and meat with floating peas and potatoes and boiled rice…hell, I think even the toothpicks were boiled. Oh and there were cabbages. Why do Kikuyus have to have cabbages in all their meals? And in the vegetable family cabbages are the least lacking in personality. Cabbages look like they are constantly on antidepressants, now boil them and they totally lose their soul.
Also, I think someone (ahem) forgot to tell the cooks that I’m not big on red meat, so I sat there and struggled to eat these chunks of meat that I think had been boiling three days before I arrived, meat so soft they peeled themselves by just looking at them.
Nonetheless, they fussed around me as I ate; all smiley and suggesting that I try out this or that. It’s the thought that counted, but boy was that a long meal? In fact, they would later pack some of the food (the chapos were phenomenal) for me to take away. I always tell the missus that if I didn’t change my mind at that point when all that boiled food arrived at the table then very few things will make me change my mind.
Even though I was a Luo asking for the hand of a daughter of a Kikuyu I was treated very decently, but with a level of curiosity that I found amusing. I’m very certain that for some villagers who rocked up, they hadn’t really interacted with a Luo before. They had heard that the missus had defied tradition and gone to fish in the lake and so they came to see who the hell I was and how different I was. If I fit a stereotype of a Luo. I’m certain that apart from my large forehead, they found me pretty much normal. I hope.
Being the storyteller that I try to be, I regaled a few aunties with tales about my village. I romanticised Kendu Bay. I lied to them that I owned a small canoe, that when I go to shags I push it out into the lake for a fishing expedition. I told them I can debone a whole fish blindfolded and not get chocked. Ahem. You could say I pushed out the boat on that one. They laughed at some stories, or maybe they were just laughing at me.
But of course the missus confided to me later that they had questions they couldn’t ask me.
They wondered why she would go “so far away” for a man.
They asked her if she wasn’t scared.
I asked her, scared of what?
Our tradition, she said.
What tradition? I asked.
Well, they asked if she would be forced to sleep with the dead (gulp), or be shaven bald in case of a death in the family or that “tero buru” lore.
I said, Of course! We shall also take you to the Lake at midnight and make you spend a night in a boat wearing nothing but a headscarf. We will also make incision in your skin with a rustic knife and rub herbal medicine in there to protect you from evil. At some point we will also remove your seven lower teeth. And if there is time, I added, we shall also teach you how to Nightrun. And no, you can’t wear running shoes for that. Barefeet. Buck-naked. Jango style.
Here is the thing. I realise through the missus that although our parents raise us in towns, they still manage to deceptively put in our heads subtle but very rancid ethnic vibes about other tribes. Every time the missus spends a night in Kendu, she normally insists that I push a table against the door of my Simba, on top of bolting the door. Why? Because growing up she was told of naked Luo night runners who hurl themselves against doors, especially behind doors that visitors sleep in, or pee and shell at doorways. Like you would be sleeping in the Simba and suddenly a naked man, lithe and black as Django, suddenly bursts into the house with the door then proceed to run off laughing hysterically into the night. I told her those are old tales, that in all my years going shags I’d never heard of a night runner doing that stuff. But she always insists on that table against the door. Sometimes we lock doors, thinking we are locking out night runners while all the time the night runner is in the house (Insert evil laughter).
But seriously. We grow up with Kuyus. We grow up with them because they are our neighbours; we go to school with them. We copy their homework, steal their pens. We do this because we don’t see them as Kikuyus. They are just like everybody else. But sometimes, you will hear something from your parents’ mouths, something they didn’t mean to say before you because they claim to raise you differently. You hear fables of Kikuyus who will steal from you at the drop of a hat. Sneaky Kikuyu women who will kill you in your sleep and take off with your wealth. I sort of grew up knowing that all barmaids are Kikuyus. There were stores of Kikuyus who will stab you in the back for a song and go right out and have a beer. Probably a Whitecap. We hear all this collage of tribal stories at home as we grow up, socialised in them but they are a complete departure from Kimani or Chege you know. And I’m sure the same happened in Kikuyu homes. Whispers. Seeds planted. Jaruos are this, Jaruos are that. Jaruo will marry many wives. Kehes.
As fate would have it, we grow up and we start chasing Kikuyu tail. Then we dragged them home and looked at our parents’ faces, as they remained ensnared between modern thought and dark ideology. Some of us are lucky to have had it easy, others aren’t so lucky.
Being a Luo married to a Kikuyu means while the 9 O’clock news is just news for the rest, for us it’s an art of political correctness. This means that often she will say something that will piss me off. Hell, at news most things she does just piss me off. If she coughs when Raila is speaking, I will stare and go, “surely, that wasn’t necessary, did I make any derogatory sounds while Uhuru was speaking? Why disrespect Jakom like that, eh?” Because we are both voting differently, it sometimes gets a tad emotional when someone utters something that is deemed derogatory. Which means, as much as I want to say something smart about Uhuru’s eyes, I just can’t. Because it will be tribal and someone will sleep on the couch. Someone with a blog. Consequently, the only thing we agree on politically is that Kajwang should stop singing.
Truth is, most of my Kikuyu pals aren’t going to vote for Jakom. And I have gazillion of Kikuyu pals. But does their decision mean that they hate Jaruos? Does it mean, also, that I value them less or that they think less of me? No, it just means they are scared if Jakom comes in, Uhuru Highway – as a mockery to UK – will have a lane specifically for Luos. A lane cleared marked “Luos” and “Others”. OK, Turkanas will be allowed to share it. And Digos. But that’s it.
Their decisions are informed by comfort. That they are pandering to familiarity. I also happen to know many Luo guys, and not one of them is voting for Uhuru. I don’t see that like they hate Uhuru. They just feel that the presidency isn’t a province of one tribe. Or family. That surely, how else will the world know that the Luos posses other talents other than fishing? And throwing stones.
And ethnic pride shouldn’t be confused with tribalism, the line is thin, yes, but it’s not the same. Tribalism is spurred by ignorance while ethnic pride is marked by information. Still, we are so scared of being branded tribalists just because we find comfort in our own ways.
At the end of it all there are many things we admire in Kikuyus, like the ability to boil everything. And I’m sure they are stuff they admire in us, like how we can be so totally comfortable in our (fore) skin. There, I’ve exorcised the elephant in the room. Can we all move on now?
At the end of the day we all want the same things. I look at my friends in their 30’s and we are more similar than we are dissimilar. We go to the same bars. We nurse the same dreams and fears. We have the same anxieties in life. We all want the same things for our children. We all want money in our pockets. There is homogeneity of our wants and needs.
I don’t want Uhuru to win. But if he wins, I will pick up from where I left things off. I will use the same route to the office. I will still have my black tea sugarless. I will still worry about the schools fees for Tamm’s class one next year. I will go back to worrying about the state of my car’s suspensions. I will visit the same bars. I won’t change my whiskey, or change my friends. Life will go back as it should because ultimately your direction in life isn’t anybody’s business. Raila won’t send bread to my house every week if he wins. Nor will Uhuru. Or Diba (though he might send some strippers). These folk will go back to their lives. Like we all should.
I look at my Kikuyu pals and I ask myself, Have they had better opportunities the past eight years when Kibaki was president? Have they progressed in life faster than I have because one of their own is in State House. Of course not. Ok, they might have had roads built right outside their shags but they hardly ever go to shags. Very few can claim to be happier and safer than say Papa Shirandula because Kibaki was been president.
If Raila wins, the world won’t stop. OK, it will for a two minutes, but life will move on. There will be the initial bravado on Facebook and Twitter. Horns will be tooted. Jokes will be made. But at some point we shall all realise that we have bills to pay and that Raila won’t write us a cheque. And we shall get on with it. Life happens very quickly when you focus on stuff that doesn’t add too much value to your life.
So let’s not get our knickers in a twist over elections. Let’s make it peaceful, if not for us, then for our kids. There is a scene in Pulp Fiction, towards the end, where Samuel L Jackson is telling that white lady – the robber- standing on the table, brandishing a pistol, to “be cool.” With his own gun trained on her, and her boyfriend held in a headlock in his hands, he asks him repeatedly to ask, “Honey Bunny,” to “ be cool”. Be cool Honey Bunny. Be cool. And that’s what we need, we need to be cool.
Happy Voting, Ganggam style!!.
David Kimondo The original was actually from Biko Zulu and it’s titled “Yes, you are tribal.”